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Ball tampering and the war on terror

Last week President Bush had to deny leaked stories of threats made to the Pakistan government in order to get them to join the war on terror, during a visit from President Musharraf of Pakistan. Musharraf is now in London to see Prime Minister Blair who is having to distance himself from a leaked Defence Ministry report claiming that the Pakistan security service has been tacitly supporting Islamist terrorists. Sorry, you are reading the sports economist blog, but this is by way of saying that Pakistan has become incredibly important on the world political stage and there is a bizarre link between all this and cricket.

Today the International Cricket Council has given the Pakistan captain a four match suspension for "bringing the game into disrepute". During a match in London last month against England the umpires awarded a five run penalty (not such a big deal as this would be in baseball, since at the time Pakistan had already scored over 500 runs in the game) for ball tampering. Essentially, the Pakistani bowlers were being accused of interfering with the ball to make it "reverse swing"- a kind of movement in the air which is highly unusual and difficult to achieve. The team's captain, Inzamam-ul-Haq, then refused to bring his team back onto the field after the official tea break (more sports should have tea breaks), resulting in the game being awarded to England, even though the Pakistan captain agreed to continue playing after some negotiation.

This might sound like the Pakistan team and captain are guilty of foul play, but things are a lot more complicated. First, while the umpires acted fully within their powers, the evidence on which they based their accusations of ball tampering were slim. After much searching no camera evidence was found, even though there must have been half a dozen TV cameras at the ground and many press and private photographers, not to mention a crowd of over 20,000 who apparently saw nothing. Second, the umpire who made the call, the Australian Darrell Hair, despite a long and respected career, has been accused by players from India and Sri Lanka as well as Pakistan of racial prejudice on several occasions. He didn't help his cause by sending an email to the cricket authorities agreeing to resign after the incident if he were paid A$500,000. Some might argue that the decision to cede the game to England was inflexible, especially since the match was well poised and the last day of the game would have been exciting (ok, no jokes from you non-cricketers).

Inzamam himself is a highly respected player abroad and a national hero in Pakistan. As well as being a great batsman, he is a great leader of his team and a man who usually conducts himself with humility, grace and good sportsmanship. There is no doubt that many Pakistanis will view this as part of conspiracy against them. First, there are the Australians, who have said some pretty tough things about Pakistan cricket in the past. Traditionally Australia and England have dominated the administration of the sport, in ways that many Asians would view as little better than colonial in spirit. In recent years the balance of power has been shifting to India largely because of the phenomenal growth in the value of their TV rights. However, India is no friend of Pakistan and so the latter may see their hand in the decision.

A lot of this has to do with the concept of reverse swing. It was "discovered" in Pakistan in the 1970s, and when it first started to happen in international games some England players and others accused the Pakistanis of cheating. However, last year when England defeated Australia for the first time in nearly 20 years their bowlers used reverse swing and were acclaimed for their skill rather than cheating. When England tour Australia this winter it will be very interesting to see the reaction if the England bowlers manage to produce reverse swing again.

I guess it's all quite sad, but I have always been staggered by the claim that politics should be kept out of sport. It's a little bit like saying that we should keep guns out of warfare. Bush played cricket while visiting India last year, so maybe he understands that the future of the game could be important to US foreign policy.